The world would be better with more journalists like Harry Evans
John Micklethwait/Bloomberg News
In journalism there are very few great editors. The famous names tend to be reporters or columnists — and rightly so. They are the people who break news, who bring down presidents, who write the words or take the pictures that capture the mood of a nation (or change it). They’re also the ones who risk life and limb. Almost nobody comes into journalism dreaming of becoming an editor, while many old editors leave journalism wishing they’d spent more time writing stories and less time writing memos. Harry Evans, who died last night, was a truly great editor. In an age when even the word “news” is often preceded by the word “fake,” his life was proof of the enduring value of the fourth estate. That is partly because of the jobs he did. Since moving to New York in the 1980s, he edited the Atlantic, U.S. News & World Report and the New York Daily News, set up Conde Nast Traveler, ran a chunk of Random House and found an influential perch at Reuters as an editor-at-large. But his reputation was forged on the other side of the Atlantic. If Harry ended up (very happily) in Manhattan, part of him never really left Manchester, where he was born the son of a railway worker and where he left school aged 15, putting himself through a shorthand typing course to get a job as a local reporter. All his life, Evans fought for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. At the Northern Echo, where he first made his name in the 1960s, he campaigned for cervical cancer screening to be made available to all women, which saved thousands of lives. When he moved to the London Sunday Times, where he was editor from 1967 till 1981, he took on Distillers, a huge British company, to fight for compensation for the victims of Thalidomide, a drug that caused deformity in children. At the Sunday Times, he pioneered a form of investigative journalism that’s now commonplace in newsrooms, based around a team of dedicated reporters. He was fearless when it came to confronting power. He took on Britain’s Official Secrets Act — exposing Kim Philby as a Soviet spy and publishing the diaries of Richard Crossman, which showed how the state really worked. In 1972, when British paratroopers shot into a crowd of protesters on Bloody Sunday, he sent a team to Northern Ireland to conduct a parallel inquiry to the official government one. Throughout his life Evans had a fascination with America. He went there on a Harkness scholarship as a young man, and was amazed by its classless prosperity. So it was a natural place to go in the 1980s when he fell out with Rupert Murdoch, the new proprietor of the Sunday Times. He wrote a couple of bestselling books about America, and with his wife, Tina Brown, the editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, Evans provided a transatlantic haven for writers and thinkers (he hated the word salon, saying it reminded him of the hairdressers). To the end of his days he remained a consistent proponent of press freedom around the world. Looking back, there are three things other journalists can learn from Evans. The first was his bravery. He was never afraid to challenge the law and then try to change it. The second was his persistence. One of the best pieces of advice he offered other journalists is that the moment when you tire with a story is the moment that the public eventually notices. The last was his modesty. Evans was always good at coining phrases and capturing images (at the Northern Echo he invented “the Teesside smell” to highlight pollution), but he believed that an editor’s main job was to promote the work of other journalists. To the end of his days, he would always be pointing to good things that other journalists had written or trying to spot talent. The list of people he helped is long — and it extends well beyond just those who worked for him to the millions he fought for and whose lives he helped improve simply by telling their side of the story. The world would be better if there were more like him.